Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island Recovery: Roofless Homes, Closed Schools, An Island Left To Fend For Itself

The face of forgotten Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria could well be that of José Luis “Chegüi” Aponte Cruz, who lost his livelihood and everything in his home when the ferocious storm pushed the roiling sea a mile into this poor beachfront community, sweeping away much of what lay in its path.

Maria smashed apart the bright yellow concrete beach kiosk where people once came for Chegüi’s famed bacalaítos, or codfish fritters.

Today, little in Punta Santiago is as it was before Maria swept across the entire length and width of the island, plunging it into darkness, damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and deepening a long-running economic and political crisis.

To call recovery uneven and uncertain doesn’t begin to capture the true state of things in Puerto Rico 12 months after Maria came ashore as a potent Category 4 storm.

Most of the island has settled into a semblance of normalcy, and the legendary rush-hour traffic jams in the relatively prosperous San Juan metro area have returned, somewhat worsened because traffic signals at some busy intersections work only intermittently, if at all.

But appearances are deceptive. Stability of any kind — economic, political, demographic, in daily life — remains a scarce commodity in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.3 million people who are American citizens by birth, and also survivors of one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history. For many, it’s far from over.

Power has been restored almost everywhere, an effort funded almost wholly by the federal government, but outages are common and the obsolete, patched-up electrical grid remains vulnerable to massive failure in the next storm and to simple mishaps: Power to a broad section of the island was knocked out for two days earlier this year when an excavator struck a power transmission tower in the mountains.

Much of the electrical generation and transmission system must be redesigned and rebuilt from the ground up, power authority officials say.

Many damaged shopping centers and businesses have yet to reopen, and the jobs they provided hang in limbo. It’s a similar picture in the critical tourism industry. Operators of some key resorts are hastening repairs to reopen for the upcoming season, the second since Maria.

Federal recovery aid for homeowners, renters and businesses has been spotty and slow to arrive, while payouts are often insufficient to complete needed repairs, something that’s especially critical when few property owners carry insurance.

Property-title issues arising from Puerto Rico’s system of often-informal land transfer — a legacy of the Spanish colonial legal system — have meanwhile disqualified thousands of households from receiving any Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to repair damaged homes. Out of 1.1 million applications for individual aid, FEMA says, nearly a third, or 332,000, were denied.

The Puerto Rican government says about 60,000 occupied homes remain roofless, covered by the temporary blue FEMA tarps that have become a symbol of Maria’s devastation and what many on and off the island perceive as a woefully inadequate response by the administration of President Donald Trump. On a bridge over a main artery in San Juan, stenciled graffiti reads “FEMA es el problema.” FEMA is the problem.

An analysis by Miami Herald parent McClatchy of public data for FEMA’s housing assistance program found that, as of June 1, Maria survivors in Puerto Rico received an average of $1,800 for repair assistance. In contrast, survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year got $9,127.

In many if not most cases, advocates and homeowners say, FEMA grants were hardly enough to replace lost appliances, furnishings and clothing, much less to make repairs sufficient to allow people to remain living safely at home, the purpose of the emergency aid.

On an island where half the population lives under the federal poverty level, many homeowners’ and merchants’ meager savings were exhausted by the high cost of running gasoline generators for months before they could even tackle renovations. Though FEMA did provide generators, critics say the agency did not account for the cost of fuel.

Overwhelmed by the scope of Maria’s devastation and the need to restore basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and all but broke even before the storm, Puerto Rico’s state and municipal governments have been unable to provide residents much direct relief.

That’s led to a widespread sense among many on the island that Puerto Ricans have been largely left to fend for themselves after Maria. Those who have managed to begin a path to recovery say they have done so in large part with help from neighbors, community organizations, squads of volunteers and donations and other significant support from private foundations in Puerto Rico and outside the island, especially from the rest of the United States — and with lots of sweat and suffering.

When seawater began to rise rapidly inside Edna Velázquez’s concrete-block Punta Santiago home during Maria’s long onslaught, she and her children scrambled outside to reach an exterior staircase leading to a second story occupied by relatives. Velázquez, who can’t swim, said she nearly drowned when she stepped off the back stoop into water up to her neck. As she recounted the tale, her blind 79-year-old mother, Lidia M. Rodríguez, sitting beside her, began to sob audibly.

By the time the storm surge finally and fully receded days later, everything Velázquez and her family owned was destroyed or washed away, including cars. But FEMA denied her application for aid; Velázquez says she doesn’t know the reason and, frustrated with a long delay, gave up an appeal. Instead, she replaced furnishings and made what repairs she could with help from neighbors and friends. The damaged home still leaks when it rains.

“All the neighbors, we helped one another. We fought together and we got ahead,” she said, adding that the trauma is still fresh. “It doesn’t seem like a year ago. I see all this and cry. Sometimes I look at the sea and I feel panic. But we’re alive to tell the story, and for the world to see.”

Criticism of the federal response to Maria has been a rare point of agreement among two leading and rival Puerto Rican politicians, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, an outspoken Trump critic, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has expressly declined to lay the blame on Trump.

The issue is closely bound up with the island’s peculiar political landscape as a U.S. commonwealth whose U.S. citizen residents cannot vote for president and have no voting representative in Congress (Puerto Ricans automatically enjoy full U.S. voting rights if they move to one of the 50 states).

The two principal political parties on the island, Rosselló’s New Progressive Party and Cruz’s Popular Democratic Party, are organized around espousing statehood or preserving but enhancing the island’s commonwealth status without full statehood, respectively.

FEMA issued a report in July conceding it was unprepared for the double-whammy effects of Hurricane Irma and the far more devastating Maria on Puerto Rico, which came after Hurricane Harvey flooded a broad swath of Houston and wildfires destroyed entire communities in California.

Earlier this month, a massive performance audit report by the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that FEMA did its job in the earlier disasters, but failed to anticipate the extensive and intense damage from Maria, and was overwhelmed when it came time to respond to that calamity.

But FEMA says it has now markedly ratcheted up its response to Maria. The agency last month announced an additional $110 million in aid grants to the island’s troubled power authority and its central office for recovery and reconstruction. That brought the total it has spent or pledged in response to Hurricane Maria to $1.3 billion in aid to individuals and $3.4 billion in public grants — money that island leaders concede has begun to restart Puerto Rico’s stalled economy.

Far more relief money is coming.

Congress has approved nearly $20 billion in grants to Puerto Rico from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that are earmarked for housing and business reconstruction and upgrades and modernization of the fragile electrical grid and other infrastructure, in particular projects to help the island better withstand future storms. That could include raising homes or buildings above storm-surge levels, buying out properties in vulnerable spots or restoring wetlands to protect shoreline development, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

In late July, HUD approved a Puerto Rico government plan for the first $1.5 billion, which will fund a program to provide homeowners up to $48,000 each in grants to repair damaged houses and up to $120,000 to rebuild destroyed homes. About $10 million will go to rental assistance, $145 million to revitalize businesses and $100 million toward the repair of damaged infrastructure.

Though it’s one of the largest single HUD disaster-aid packages ever approved, the amount falls short of the $94 billion the Rosselló administration estimates is needed for a full reconstruction and to bring the island’s decrepit and antiquated infrastructure up to par.

It’s still unclear when the allocated money will begin to flow to those who need it the most, or what the procedures will be to review applications. Regulations are being drafted, but the vetting and management will fall to the Puerto Rican government, Sullivan said.

“After all this money, there still will be unmet needs,” Sullivan acknowledged.

In Punta Santiago, additional aid can’t arrive soon enough for its 5,200 or so residents.

The fishing pier that once attracted a weekend throng of beachgoers and tourists is a wreck, and the return of cash-spending visitors on which the community depended remains more hope than reality. Repair estimates for the pier, which had been renovated just two years before Maria, run well over $1 million, money the municipality of Humacao doesn’t have, said Félix Fontánez López, project manager at PECES, a community organization that has been the backbone of local recovery efforts.

Via: Miami Herald

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